Francis Rawls is an ex-Philadelphia police sergeant accused of child-porn related crimes. Federal prosecutes believe that evidence for this exists on two encrypted hard drives that Rawls says he cannot remember the passwords for.
On Monday, US federal prosecutors acting on behalf of the US government urged the 3rd US Circuit Court of Appeals of Philadelphia to jail Rawls indefinitely on grounds of contempt of court, “until such time that he fully complies” with the decryption order.
Any such demand would normally be considered in violation of the Fifth Amendment, which protects individuals from being forced to incriminate themselves. The prosecutors, however, claimed that this did not apply in this case, because the existence of child pornography on the drives was a “foregone conclusion.” They insisted that,
“This is not a fishing expedition on the part of the government.”
Um… so if it is a “foregone conclusion” that Rawls is guilty, why do the feds not simply charge him and put the evidence in front of a court of law? This is something they have declined to do.
The answer is clearly that they do not have enough evidence to convict the man, and are hoping that the hard drives will provide it. This push to access the hard drives, therefore, clearly is a fishing expedition!
According to the government,
“A subsequent forensic exam of his Mac Pro computer revealed that Doe had installed a virtual machine (software that emulates a separate computer within his computer). Within the virtual machine the examiner found one image of what appeared to be a 14-year-old child wearing a bathing suit and posed in a sexually suggestive position. There were also log files that indicated that Doe had visited groups titled: “toddler_cp,” “lolicam,” “hussy,” “child models – girls,” “pedomom,” “tor- childporn,” and “pthc,” terms that are commonly used in child exploitation.
The exam also found that Freenet, the peer-to-peer file sharing program used by Doe to obtain child pornography from other users, had been installed within the virtual machine. The exam showed that Doe accessed or attempted to access more than 20,000 files with file names consistent with obvious child pornography…and that he used the external hard drives seized by Delaware County detectives to access and store the images.”
This sounds pretty damning, so again the question arises: why has Rawls not been charged on the basis of it? If insufficient evidence exists, then the law dictates that he be released.
“In fact, Doe had multiple layers of password protection on his devices, and he always entered his passcodes for all of his devices from memory. Doe never had any trouble remembering his passcodes (other than when compelled to do so by the federal court), never hesitated when entering the passcodes, and never failed to gain entry on his first attempt.”
Again, this sounds quite convincing. The crimes for which he is accused are hideous, so he should certainly be monitored very closely in the future, but the principle is very simple: you can only put someone in jail if you have enough evidence to convict them!
The prosecuters are basing their demands for indefinite imprisonment on grounds of contempt of court on the 1789 All Writs Act, a 230-year-old catch-all piece of legislation that simply lets a court order someone to do something (in this case to hand over his passwords). It is the same legislation that the FBI cited in its recent demands that Apple decrypt a San Bernadino shooters iPhone. The encryption used on the disks (and which the feds appear unable to open) is clearly Apple’s FileVault.